by Terri Peña
After a long, dark winter, seeing bright red rhubarb at the market brings a smile to my face. It is a sign that spring really will arrive, and soon.
Rhubarb is a plant of contrasts. Enormous, dinosaur-sized leaves top slender red stalks. The redness of the stalks makes you think of sweet strawberries, but the actual flavor is so tart your face puckers as though you had just put a lemon in your mouth. Classified as a vegetable, it is considered a fruit in the US, and mostly eaten after the addition of large amounts of sugar and a long cooking period. You are most likely to be served rhubarb in a pie, and “pie plant” is a common nickname.
Rhubarb has been used for thousands of years in China, moved to Europe in the 14th century, and made it to the US in the 1820s. The first rhubarb plants were brought to Maine and Massachusetts, then moved west with the settlers. While most often served as pie, rhubarb is surprisingly versatile and can even be used in savory applications.
If you have any room at all to grow plants, rhubarb is guaranteed to produce under even the most challenging conditions. With very little attention from the gardener, rhubarb will be the first thing to poke up from the dirt in the spring, and leave you plenty of pretty red stalks to use in drinks, sauces, cakes, and even pies.